Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopic thriller Children of Men is set in a world in the near future (2027) in which the entire human race has become sterile. The film begins with a report of the murder of an 18 year old, nicknamed Baby Diego, whose claim to fame is that he was the world’s youngest human—the last human to be born before the infertility pandemic inexplicably brought a halt to all human births. The main plot of the film itself, meanwhile revolves around a young refugee (a “fugee”) named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is found to be pregnant, and the efforts of the film’s protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist cum bureaucrat who has been recruited to escort Kee to ship called the Tomorrow run by a group called the Human Project devoted to preserving humanity.
At one point near the beginning of the film, Theo visits his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), a powerful government official who also collects art works to prevent them from being destroyed by the rampaging masses. Nigel’s collection includes such priceless and eclectic works as Picasso’s Guernica and a giant floating pig inspired by Pink Floyd. The most memorable image from his collection, however, is that of Michelangelo’s David— which been damaged in some of the recent violence, resulting in the statue’s left leg being broken off below the knee (this is probably inspired by a well-known incident in 1991, in which a vandal attacked the statue's left foot with a hammer). Nigel has restored the priceless work with a steel bar connecting the statue’s lower leg to the foot—suggesting the sort of prosthetic a soldier might receive after losing a limb in battle. While a prosthetic lower leg made out a light-weight metallic bar might offer considerable functional advantages for an actual person, in the case of a famous statue it serves as an explicit and poignant reminder of the violence that the work has undergone in the recent past.
The The Children of Men's use of David’s metallic prosthesis as an indexical trace of the past, however, stands in stark contrast with the film’s parallel fascination with the symbolic erasure of the recent past in favor of preserving (or recuperating) some sort of ideal origin. For instance, this amnesic erasure of the recent past can be seen in the figure of Baby Diego. Although, by the time of this death, “Baby” Diego is already an 18 year old adult, he is nevertheless symbolically frozen in time as a result of being consistently identified as the last human baby to be born. Not only is this identity responsible for his ultimate death (as a result of a fight with an over-enthusiastic autograph seeker), but furthermore the blanket media coverage of his death focuses almost exclusively on images of Diego’s infancy and early childhood—thereby eliding the significance of the adult individual which Diego had subsequently become.
This process of erasing the recent past in favor of an idealized origin, furthermore, is developed even more explicitly in the figure of the other infant featured in the film—Kee’s (initially) unborn child, who is repeatedly presented through a symbolics and iconography of immaculate conception (it was not an accident, therefore, that the film was released in the US on Christmas day). For instance, when a solicitous Theo asks Kee about the father of her unborn child, she initially claims, ironically, that she is a virgin (she subsequently explains that she is, of course, joking, but in fact has no way of knowing which “bloke” was the infant's actual father). Later, after the child is born, two separate characters exclaim “Jesus Christ” when they see the infant.
These opposing tendencies between preserving and erasing traces of the past, meanwhile, can be seen in an interesting discussion of a shot of Kee holding her newborn infant in her arms. As Cuarón discusses at one point, this scene references both Nativity iconography, but is also simultaneously inflected with allusions to more recent political history:
[The protagonists] exit the Russian apartments, and the next shot you see is this woman wailing, holding the body of her son in her arms. This was a reference to a real photograph of a woman holding the body of her son in the Balkans, crying with the corpse of her son. It's very obvious that when the photographer captured that photograph, he was referencing La Pieta, the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the corpse of Jesus. So: We have a reference to something that really happened, in the Balkans, which is itself a reference to the Michelangelo sculpture. At the same time, we use the sculpture of David early on, which is also by Michelangelo, and we have of course the whole reference to the Nativity. And so everything was referencing and cross-referencing, as much as we could.
In another interview, Cuarón explains somewhat more succinctly what he was trying to accomplish with this sort of gesture:
So I [tried] to actually absorb iconography that has been engraved in human consciousness, and that iconography comes from newsreels and media and to create that sense of recognition.
In short, through the use of Nativity and other Biblical iconography Cuarón performs a double inversion: sublating historical specificity in favor of quasi-ahistorical biblical iconography, but then taking that same iconography and reinvesting it with historically specific connotations from the recent past (thereby re-anchoring the film in contemporary political concerns inspired by not only the conflict in the Balkans, but also 9/11, the Iraq War, global immigration debates, etc.).
In several intriguing comments, furthermore, Cuarón even attempts to present the film itself as the product of a symbolic immaculate conception. For instance, although acknowledging the film’s indebtedness to P. D. James’ excellent 1992 novel Children of Men, Cuarón nevertheless claims that he never read the novel before writing the screenplay (“I don't want to read the book because I don't want to sidetrack myself or second-guess myself. I had a very clear vision of the movie I wanted to do”). (Cuarón notes at another point that he ultimately “read an abridged version of the book.”)
Similarly, in a gesture reminiscent of Kee’s rhetorical sublation of the countless “blokes” who might have fathered her unborn child into a (tongue in cheek) reference to immaculate conception, Cuarón himself attempts as much as possible to shift attention away from the multiple hands who helped compose the film script (the movie had a nine year gestation, and has five credited scriptwriters). While many viewers have commented on how coherent the film appears to be despite the unusually large number of scriptwriters, for instance, Cuarón nevertheless claims in an interview that, besides himself and partner Timothy Sexton, the other credited writers actually “have nothing to do with my movie”:
these other writers, they did not exist in this movie. It was me, and Tim Sexton, and Clive Owen. That's all. And by the same token, I'm willing to give credit to whoever really deserves credit for the film. And except for Tim Sexton and myself, for me, all these other writers, it's just studio development work that I'm not even interested in discussing, because I don't know what they did, and I couldn't care less.
(Cuarón claims that he was forced by the guild to credit the other script writers as an act of petty vengeance resulting from the fact that he was directing the film for which he had written the screenplay).
The film’s twin themes of erasure and preservation of the past, together with the related questions of the acknowledgement and elision of creative inspiration, finally, come together in the film’s title, which is, of course, taken directly from P. D. James’ original novel. While, like other dystopian works such as Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later, neither the novel or the film version of Children of Men makes any attempt to posit a scientific explanation for the catastrophe, the novel nevertheless implies that the problem lies in men’s sperm (it makes several references to men’s inability to produce fertile sperm, and how even sperm frozen in sperm banks turns out to be useless as well). In Cuarón’s film version, by contrast, the discussion of infertility is shifted to the figure of the woman. A former midwife describes, for instance, how at the beginning of the pandemic there was a rash of miscarriages and premature births, followed by nothing at all—implying that the problem lay more in women's inability to get and stay pregnant. Similarly, when Kee is found to be pregnant, the emphasis becomes centered entirely on her and her unborn son, with merely a passing mention made to the potential father.
Therefore, in preserving the title of James’s novel, Cuarón is simultaneously acknowledging James’ role in providing the original inspiration for his work, while at the same time engaging in a sort of creative anarchronism. The original “Children of Men” title becomes, in Cuarón’s hands, “Children of [Wo]men”—figuratively reinscribing the role of woman in his immaculate conception narrative, even as he is implicitly eliding the creative role of the novel’s original (female) author.